Last Saturday saw the 128th Miners’ Gala in Durham (called locally ‘The Big Meeting’). It got the national headlines because Labour leader Ed Miliband attended, the first leader to do so for 23 years. (Neil Kinnock was the last.)I’ve not much to say about EM’s speech except that he called us all ‘friends’ and never mentioned Tony Blair. This was a wise decision, following his not-so-wise one to bring Blair back as some sort of ‘policy advisor’*.
The other MP – who did interest me – was Tom Watson, the pugnacious Labour member who helped to cut down the Murdochs. He spoke of his titanic struggles against the house of Murdoch and how this had impacted on his and his family’s lives. It was a powerful speech and went down well with the crowds on the Durham racecourse. For many, it was probably the first time they had heard in detail of the part he had played in the media moguls’ fall from grace.
This was just as well, as I could not find a report of his speech in the following Monday’s edition of The Northern Echo, which covered the Gala in some detail. But there is an excellent account in Dial M for Murdoch, written by Watson with Martin Hickman (Allen Lane, 2012).
Four other speakers worthy of note (though I did not hear the full range) were John Hendy QC, PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka and two Spanish miners, who are fighting against pit closures.
John Hendy threw out a direct challenge to Miliband: ‘What we need, are trade union rights, like the right to strike, the power to take industrial action.’ Britain, he reminded us (and Ed Miliband, who was sitting nearby on the platform), had the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world and action was needed to change this.
Mark Serwotka’s speech, too, must have made uncomfortable listening for the Labour leader. He praised the Tyne and Wear Metro cleaners for taking industrial action in support of decent pay, and called for support for the action being taken by workers at Remploy, who are taking action to defend their jobs. He ended with a call for a million people to take part in the London rally called by the TUC on 20 October.
The Spanish miners were warmly applauded when they spoke of their struggle against pit closures. At the end of May, miners in Asturias, the mountainous region in north-west Spain went on indefinite strike.
Fourteen men spent more than forty days and nights 3,000 feet underground in the Candin shaft near the small town of Langreo. They had voluntarily locked themselves in the depth of the mine to protest against the massive 63 per cent cut in financial support to the industry, which the Spanish government, under the conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy, imposed as part of a wave of austerity measures.
Durham showed its solidarity and the two left with £10,000 in support of their struggle.
Finally, it was good to see NUJ activist Pete Lazenby supporting the new banner of the Women Against Pit Closures campaign (WAPC). Designed by political artist and miner’s son Andrew Turner, it was one of the new banners that made it way from the racecourse to Durham Cathedral for the traditional blessing by the Bishop of Durham.
The Big Meeting, an emotional day to remember, a great celebration of the miners’ history and culture. Our movement is alive and still fighting back.
* More on that appointment
Blair’s appointment by Miliband as a policy advisor has prompted Guardian columnist, Simon Jenkins, to write a very good opinion piece in today’s (27 July) Guardian entitled ‘Blair may itch to return, but he faces a cruel reality check’. He continues:
He (Blair) last year earned £20m … feels that now his purpose ‘…to make a difference’. … A ‘comeback team’ has assembled under ‘Tony Blair Associates’ in London … … Blair’s contribution to economic policy is that ‘Britain must not hang 20 bankers at the end of the street’, a dutiful nod in the direction of his £2m salary from JP Morgan. He is an advisor to Kazakhstan … The Kazakh dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev apparently paid him $13m to eulogise his odious regime in a state video and applaud him for ‘subtlety and ingenuity … in a region fraught with difficulties’…1
1. Simon Jenkins/Guardian News & Media Ltd (2012)